Asparagus: a spring treat

(Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

(Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Earlier in the season, stores were full of pencil-thin asparagus spears. Now, thick stalks of asparagus are popping up in our garden.

Fresh asparagus is a delectable spring treat. If, like my friend Theresa, you’ve only had the canned variety, there is no comparison. The crisp, tender stalks are best when fresh, since they start to lose moisture and flavor as soon as they’re harvested. This is why home grown is so much better than what you can get in the store, which has often traveled from California.

Many people think the thinner stems are the most tender, but tenderness is related to freshness and maturity, not size. Stems do not get thicker with age; the thick stems are already fat when they come out of the ground. When peeled or snapped, they contain more of the tender innards.

The bottom ends of asparagus can be tough. Julia Child, in her 1982 book From Julia Child’s Kitchen, claims that “the best asparagus is peeled asparagus” and advises to peel the skin within two inches of the top, using a sharp knife or potato peeler. I prefer to bend the spear from the bottom just until it snaps to get rid of the tough stem end; with thin stems, especially, peeling removes too much of the asparagus. Whichever you prefer, don’t discard the peels or ends; instead, boil them in salted water or chicken broth to make a base for a flavorful stock or soup.

Grown in the Mediterranean basin for over 2,000 years, asparagus is a dieter’s paradise. Each tender, flavorful stalk has only four calories, and is rich in fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, A, C, and thiamine. A natural diuretic, asparagus can prevent the bloat many women experience prior to menstruation.

Look for tightly closed tips; open or wilted tips indicate it is past its prime. Store it as you would cut flowers: trim off a half inch at the bottom, and stand it upright in a glass of water in the refrigerator. And cook it as soon as you can after you get it home from the supermarket or farm stand.

Asparagus can be eaten raw or cooked. A tall, narrow spaghetti cooker allows the spears to cook upright in a minimum of water, so that the bottoms cook while the tender tips are steamed, but don’t fret if you don’t have one of these. Just make sure you don’t overcook. Taste a spear for desired doneness; two to five minutes is generally enough. It is great steamed, stir-fried, grilled, or roasted. Asparagus adds subtlety to salads and casseroles, where its gentle flavor marries well with other ingredients. Chives, tarragon, or lemon are good seasonings for asparagus. It is also great raw with a dip or in a salad. Add it at the last minute to salads, because the high acid content of many salad dressings can turn the bright green spears yellow.

Side Dish Asparagus

My favorite way to eat asparagus is as a side dish with fish or chicken. Here are two seasoning options.

Directions:

Steam 1 pound of asparagus spears until just crisp tender, two to four minutes.

Asparagus with lemon and almonds

Directions:

Melt 4 Tablespoons butter in skillet. Add 2 Tablespoons slivered almonds and cook for a couple minutes over medium high heat, until almonds begin to brown.

Remove from heat and stir in 1/4 teaspoon lemon pepper and 2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Pour over asparagus in serving dish. Serve warm.

Or simply melt 4 Tablespoons butter, stir in 1/4 cup bread crumbs, and brown slightly. Stir into warm asparagus, and serve.

Spring Potato Salad

This main dish salad combines asparagus with young new potatoes and the fresh scent of lemons.

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon Olive oil

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon tarragon

1/4 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 pound small red-skinned potatoes (about four to five)

1/2 pound asparagus spears (about 15- 20)

1/2 cup sliced button mushrooms

1/2 cup red pepper, sliced in thin, one-inch strips (about half a pepper)

1/2 cup thinly sliced mild onion (about 1/4 large)

2 eggs, cooked (hard boiled)

Directions:

In bottom of salad bowl, blend olive oil, half a teaspoon of salt, tarragon, and lemon pepper.

Bring water with remaining salt to a boil. Scrub potatoes and cut up; add to pan, and cook about five to seven minutes. Test for doneness. Snap asparagus into one or two inch lengths, reserving tips. Add to pan; cover and simmer one minute. Drain (you can reserve the water for cooking asparagus soup later). Stir lemon juice into the dressing, and stir in potatoes, asparagus and reserved tips. Add mushrooms, thinly sliced red pepper and thinly sliced onion. Stir to combine. Let sit at room temperature about an hour to cool and blend flavors. Serve garnished with slices of hardboiled egg.

Serves two to three.

Ham and Asparagus Roast

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon olive oil

4 small potatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1 pound asparagus

1 clove garlic

1 Tablespoon butter

4 scallions

1 -2 cups diced cooked ham

2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Put oil in baking casserole dish. Peel potatoes and cut into bite-size chunks. Place in casserole and stir to coat with oil (hands work best). Sprinkle with half the salt. Bake about ten minutes.

While potatoes are cooking, prepare asparagus by rinsing and snapping off the tough ends. Cut into one inch lengths. Peel the garlic and mince fine or crush.

Remove casserole from oven. Stir garlic into potatoes; place asparagus on top, sprinkle with remaining salt and return to oven. Return to oven to roast another ten minutes or so.

Cut ends off scallions, rinse, and slice. Remove casserole from oven, dot with butter, stir in scallions, ham and parsley. Return to oven for five more minutes or until vegetables are desired tenderness. Serve hot, with a side salad.

Serves two.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as “Author Yvona Fast.”

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